U.S. Army says: Spiritual people make better soldiers

I was shocked that I was the first person to ‘break’ the story of the Army’s *mandatory* Spiritual Fitness testing, and the equally mandatory remedial training that comes with it when you fail. Hours of remedial Spiritual Fitness training – so that I don’t commit suicide because I’m an atheist.

So is ‘Spiritual Fitness’ about religion?

There are two different and conflicting responses coming from DoD.

  • One line paints a rosy picture where “Spiritual” means team spirit or human spirit.  This is clearly not the case – not by a long shot. It’s absolutely swimming in religion. You can even visit the Virtual Spiritual Fitness Center which comes from this same effort. This absurd line of reasoning also shows that they know all too well that this is unconstitutional. The word games are a defense mechanism, and a shallow one at that. The term ‘Spiritual Fitness’ originated in Chaplain regulations in 1987, and has been steadily increasing in use ever since.
  • The secondary response is completely honest about the Spiritual Fitness concept being firmly rooted in religion. This angle is flaunted without regard to existing laws and prohibitive regulations. This side didn’t ‘get the script’. Neither did the editors at ABC News, notice the stock footage. Notice their contextually accurate use of the word Spirituality. Look at that artwork on the story teaser image – brilliant.

Somehow both of these arguments are actually presented in this report on ABC News. The journalist doesn’t seem to notice the enormous conflict, and the back-peddling. He’s too wrapped up in telling the story to notice that he’s missed the story.

ABC News: Why is it that Spiritual people make better soldiers?

MG Cornum: The ethos that we adhere to: Always place the mission first. Never accept defeat. Never leave a fallen comrade – Those kinds of things require you to have a belief in something higher than yourself.

I’m afraid I’ll have to avoid directly replying to her statement in this venue, but I have so much that I want to say. At one point, I was scheduled to shoot an interview for this piece as well. Things got weird locally (long, complex story). Luckily, my friend and fellow foxhole atheist SGT Dustin Chalker was able to get on board.

Unfortunately, they only used a tiny portion of his interview. But it was good to see such a well-spoken foxhole atheist get a word in. He wanted me to pass this along for context:

You might want to work this in to give some context to my quote:

“…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”
-US Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3

And he’s right. That’s almost all you need! We (almost) don’t even need to mention the First Amendment. This is the main body of the original Constitution.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation reached out to me and has secured pro bono legal representation from a world class international law firm. I’m grateful to Mikey Weinstein (MRFF President / Founder) for tirelessly championing the separation of church and state. 96% of MRFF clients are actually Christians who tend to feel that they are being told they are ‘the wrong type of Christian’. Most of their 20,000 clients have stories that you simply will never know about. In most situations the pressure from MRFF is so strong that a sudden resolution preempts the need for litigation.

I haven’t been updating the public on the pending legal battle itself for complicated reasons. I’ve typed and retyped these words so many times. But I give up – there is a whole lot that the secular community will probably never know about this struggle. I’ve had to appeal the findings of leaders that I respect, some of which have stars attached to their ranks.

Swear to tell the truth, so help you god? (Pro-tip: No.)

I’ve also struggled with an officer who wouldn’t even take my testimony without a huge hassle.

Superior: “Do you, Justin Griffith… swear to tell the truth so help you god?”

Justin Griffith: “No. I don’t believe in god, sir.”

Superior: “In that case you don’t have to swear. Rather you can affirm. Would you like to affirm?”

Justin Griffith: “Yes sir.”

Superior: “Do you, Justin Griffith… affirm that your statements are true so help you god?”

Justin Griffith: “No. I don’t believe in god, sir.”

Superior: “We have to get through this, Sergeant Griffith.”

Justin Griffith: “Well, sir – I think you should leave off that bit at the end, then.”

Superior: “That’s not an option that I’m aware of. I think we should just get it over with.”

I nodded, and looked him directly in the eye:

Superior: “Do you, Justin Griffith… affirm that your statements are true-”

Justin Griffith: “YES SIR!” (interjecting at exactly the right moment).

This caught him off guard. He let out a nervous smile and then gave up with the ‘so help me god’. I gave my testimony, and deployed the next week. And these things that I mention are minor footnotes in the real story. We’re working on it, and we refuse to go back into the closet.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

I really enjoy working with Chaplains to shatter barriers and normalize the foxhole atheist community. But legal battles like this make progressive theists nervous about working with me. They also get nervous about appearing in photographs with me or simply being mentioned on this website.

It’s very hard to write about the wonderful things that I’ve been working with Chaplains on. But I assure you, it is happening here and there. The mandatory Spiritual Fitness testing and training aside, things are changing.

“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.” Or apparently, both.

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About Justin Griffith
  • Cody Harding

    My first reenlistment was an affirmation, with ‘So help me luck’ substituting. Not that chance and happenstance was going to listen to me, but it fit into the realm better than ‘so help me random occurence’.

    I affirmed and stayed silent on the last part during my second reenlistment, though I don’t think anyone but the General noticed it.

    In your case, though, you did the right thing. Here you had a leader who simply would not allow a seperate method to be had, so you had to take the initiative and do it yourself. That’s showing initiative by taking appropriate action in the absence of a lawful order. Bravo, Sgt.

  • Dustin Chalker

    Thanks, Justin! I just can’t get over the absolutely blatent EO violation: “Those kinds of things require you to have a belief in something higher than yourself.” Really? We’re talking about the warrior ethos here, not some religious creed.

    Why not: “Those kinds of things require you to be white.”?
    Why not: “Those kinds of things require you to have testicles.”?

    The only thing the warrior ethos requires is a belief in something *equal* to yourself, which means: your fellow battle buddy next to you. I believe battle buddies exist. That’s it. Nothing “higher” in any “spiritual” sense.

    • Dustin Chalker

      Someone has pointed out that the quote was “Those kinds of things require you to have a belief in something *bigger* than yourself” – rather than “higher” – as if that makes a difference in the meaning.

      Bigger or higher, the context we’re talking about (and the question being answered) concerns spiritual fitness. Not organizational, social, family, emotional, or any other category, but “spiritual.” There is nothing “spiritual” about the suggested alternatives of the Army itself, the mission, the unit, the squad, the US Constitution, or Truth, justice, the American way. I think I’ve figured out this commentator’s favorite fallacies: he relies heavily on dropping context and misdirection. “Look! A transcription error! Now forget that the subject we’re talking about is spirituality and pretend that she meant something non-spiritual.”

  • Brian Westley

    One thing that has concerned me lately…

    http://uscode.house.gov/download/pls/28C57.txt

    If you go to
    http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/search/

    and search for god oath omitted

    You get 3 matches, parts of which say:

    The last sentence of section 512 of title 28, U.S.C., 1940 ed., reading “The words ‘So help me God.’ shall be omitted in all cases where an affirmation is admitted instead of an oath,” was omitted as unnecessary because on affirmation such words would not be included. As revised, the section conforms with section 453 of this title providing for the form of judicial oath.

    The words “or affirmation” are omitted as covered by the definition of the word “oath” in section 1 of title 1.

    What concerns me is that:
    The explicit declaration that “so help me god” is omitted for affirmations is no longer spelled out in the US Code, and the explicit phrase “oath or affirmation” has been changed to just “oath”, with both changes seen as reducing redundancy. I think redundancy helps reduce miscommunication, and I can easily see this being used to deny people the right to affirm and/or omit “so help me god.”

    The first change goes back to 1940, and the second to 1989.

  • Kit Hope

    What I can’t figure out is why chaplains are buying into a lot of this nonsense. I’ve worked with chaplains, too, and the essence of chaplaincy is meeting needs, NOT proselytising.

    • Paul Weaver

      For some, perhaps most – but, unfortunately, for many proselytising is their main mission.

  • DZ

    All three main religions believe in an afterlife….death is not the end. With this belief system, you are open to dying for the right cause.

  • Paul Weaver

    The first time I re-enlisted, I talked to my Lieutenant and told him I would be “affirming”, went over the words with him, and thought I was clear that there would be no final “swelp me dog” bit.

    However, he got nervous, and read the lines including the last one.

    As usual, I was repeating after him. After he said “So help me god”, I replied “Yeah, whatever.” That was the end of it, and nobody said anything at all.

  • http:ntrygg.wordpress.com Random ntrygg

    well, if people beleive what religion tells them, they are less likely to question orders from military HQ

    so I can see why they prefer religious/spiritual soldiers – less thinking more obedience.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rockbeyondbelief/members/justin/ Justin Griffith

      *sigh*

  • Elina

    This is a very interesting point you’ve dug up. I am interested in what moved this changes. In both years (1940 and 1989) the united states was at war with Germany annd the cold war in the 1980s. I am barely 19 and know nothing of the american history, but I wonder if this is just a coincidence. I would really appreciate it if I could get this answered


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